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Scouting and politics

This is a translation of an interview with me, published in the Czech Scouts’ SCOUT WORLD MAGAZINE · WEDNESDAY, 24 APRIL 2019.

The views expressed are entirely my own and not the policy of WOSM, The UK Scout Association, or Junák – the Czech Scout Association


An interview with former WOSM Vice-Chair, John May, on the social and political engagement of Scouts and Girl Scouts

by Dagmar Rychnovská.
The author is a member of Junák – Czech Scout.


Q. According to WOSM, Scouting is a non-political movement. What do you think of that?

A. Scouting is non-political in the sense that it does not engage in power struggle. But it is important to differentiate between what it means for the organization and what it means for its individual members…

The movement itself must not be associated with any particular political party or organisation that reflects the distribution of political forces in democratic countries. We cannot directly identify with any party or political group because it would violate the independence of the Scout Movement.

But that does not mean that Scouting is detached from social and political reality. The nature of Scouting is to help young people in their personal development as individuals and as members of the community, and that cannot happen in a vacuum. So, the movement must be able to translate its values into education.

Nothing prevents us as individuals within Scouting, or as representatives of Scout organisations, from speaking about issues such as Human Rights, the Rights of the Child, or the Sustainable Development Goals. What is important is that we combine these things directly with our educational mission, because our goal is to develop young people.

At the same time, Scouting seeks to strengthen the role of young people and empower them. We want to prepare them for life in their community so that they can live in harmony with others and with nature. In them, we reinforce what once Baden-Powell once called “a separate power of judgement.” In the spirit of our shared values, we develop young people to be able to think critically about the world around them, to verify facts, to be able to face injustice and so on.

Obviously, nothing prevents the members of the Scout Movement from being actively engaged in civic engagement or being active members of any political party. Indeed, individual membership of a political party is not at odds with Scout membership so long as the party’s core values are in line with our Scout values.

A good example of recent action is your Girl Scout Lucie, whose story I suppose is one of the reasons you are writing your article. Lucie opposed a march organised by people whose attitudes are in stark contrast to the values of Scouting. I saw in her an unspoken commitment to peace and hope for the future. I think it was a good gesture.

Q. Scouting mainly deals with educating young people. Should Scout organisations also comment on social and political issues? And if so, what?

A. This brings us to the issue of advocacy as a space to help young people in their own development. I believe, of course, that the Scout Movement can take a position on certain topics or act as a spokesperson for a question, be it areas such as Human Rights, Children’s Rights, or the Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, we should do this as an educational organisation that strives to help young people clarify their own position on important global issues themselves.

Q. Scouting seeks to educate active citizens, but this is easier in Western democratic countries with a strong civil society tradition. How can civic Scouts and Girl Scouts be in countries where democratic principles are weakened?

A. I think that Scouts in such countries can be most beneficial in the service of society. Part of a Scout’s Promise is a commitment to help their neighbours, and helping neighbours often means serving their community. I would certainly not want young people in these countries to be exposed to any danger or to act illegally. But what they can do is help their community and lead by example in terms of tolerance and openness to society. In the spirit of the Scout promise, they can be socially – not necessarily politically – engaged.

I believe, of course, that the Scout Movement can take a position on certain topics or act as a spokesperson for a question, be it areas such as Human Rights, Children’s Rights, or the Sustainable Development Goals.

Q. In many countries, we are witnessing today the growth of social differences, populism and nationalism. How can Scouting contribute to convergence in the light of this, rather than the division of society, and how do we build on these dangerous trends?

A. I think we can do two things. First and foremost, we can teach young people critical thinking. Our responsibility as non-formal educators is to help young people develop through our programmes the skills, behaviours and attitudes that are necessary for them to become active and critically thinking members of society. An obvious example is the world of social media, which is currently full of so-called fake news. For example, if we teach young people that they should never read an article online without verifying its truth and questioning it before they believe it, then I think we are helping to fight populism and nationalism.

The second thing we can do is to help young people understand the concept of dialogue. Dialogue is not just a conversation or debate, but it allows us to understand and respect the opinions of different people, even if we disagree with them. If we improve understanding between people, then perhaps both sides will come closer to consensus. If you enter “dialogue” and “world scouting” in the web search engine, you will find examples of the work that WOSM does with many other partners in this area.

Q. WOSM is now dealing with human rights and peace education. How do you think Scouting can contribute to world peace today?

A. A Scout is thoughtful and helps others. Baden-Powell founded the Scout movement in the spirit of Scouts trying to defend the oppressed and contribute to strengthening peace in the world. The Scouts assisted war refugees and displaced people, abandoned homeless children in the streets of South America in the 1960s, or helped educate young people to fight the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s. However, this always happens within the framework of education to help young people themselves in their surroundings. It is not a matter of taking a stand, but of making young people transform their communities through small activities, and this change is part of a wider social change.

What I perceive in terms of contributing to peace is a movement that calls on young people to decide for themselves to become active citizens and to live by scouting values. And if I were to define my Scout values, I would define them as integrity, respect, care, faith and cooperation.

You can read the short version of the interview in the April issue of the Scout World magazine (April 2019) .
John May was Vice Chairman of the World Scout Organization (WOSM) in 2011-2014. 
The replies do not represent the official position of WOSM. 
The interview has been translated and edited.

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